Forty years ago this weekend, Steadman Shealy led a University of Alabama to 66 points and 601 yards of offense — at the helm of a wishbone attack.
On Saturday, that 1979 team will reunite and potentially see another lopsided SEC win, this one against Ole Miss. It’s been 40 years since that group went 12-0, beat Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl and won the final national championship for Crimson Tide coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. It was the back end of back-to-back championships after the famous Goal Line Stand against Penn State in the previous year’s Sugar Bowl.
This is the story of that 1979 team, as told by the players to The Tuscaloosa News.
Alabama was No. 2 in the preseason poll in 1979, behind only USC, which received 47 of the 63 first-place votes in the AP Poll. Total domination in UA’s first four games — 30-6 over Georgia Tech in Atlanta, 45-0 over Baylor in Birmingham, 66-3 over Vanderbilt in Nashville and 38-0 over Wichita State in Tuscaloosa — was not enough to convince the AP Poll or the Coaches Poll to unseat the Trojans as their No. 1.
But Alabama’s dominance continued with a 40-0 win over Florida. After that game, UA had outscored its opponents by a combined 219-9. It had run for more than double the yards (1,928) than its defense had allowed total yards (807). It was on a 10-quarter shutout streak.
Major Ogilvie, junior running back, 97 carries for 519 yards and nine touchdowns: “A lot of the players that played together on the ’78 team were on the ’79 team, particularly on the offensive line, so we had high expectations and of course when you play at Alabama, you’re expected to win and you’re expected to compete for the national championship. We were right in the thick of things.”
Jim Bunch, senior offensive lineman, All-American guard in 1979: “We were in really great shape going into that season as far as a conditioning standpoint, we had a good offseason. During the summer practices, we didn’t really have any significant injuries, which is unusual. Sometimes luck comes into play, like my junior year: we had quite a few injuries, Southern Cal came to play us in Birmingham and they killed us. Not to use that as an excuse, but a lot of times, if you don’t have your best players, it has a big effect.
“It was probably the only season that, personally, I wasn’t hurt in some fashion. You get little nicks and things as the season goes on — I would get like an ankle or knee or something like that — but I had a pinched nerve in my neck. But I was able to build it up by the time my senior year, it really didn’t affect me. That probably helped me as much as anybody.”
E.J. Junior, junior defensive end, led the team with 14 tackles for a loss: “When we first found out we were No. 2, I think we felt a sense of relief. But at the same time, it made you hungry. The one thing Coach Bryant would always instill was you’re only as good as your next play. We felt that we were ripped off my freshman year (1977). Should we have beaten Southern Cal (in 1978)? We should have played better and it wouldn’t have been any question. But going into the season, the goal was to be undefeated and you had to prove that on the field, you can’t talk about it. But I don’t think anybody was really upset about being No. 2, like I said, we rather be the chaser than the chasee.”
Ogilvie: “Particularly the first five games that year, I want to say to the say the second- and third-team offenses and defenses played more than the first team. We had a very strong offense and we had a very strong defense, so we had a lot of fun. Had a lot of confidence, that’s for sure.”
Junior: “That first game against Georgia Tech was a great start, I had an interception and a 59-yard touchdown. That’ll always stick in my mind: being able to score a defensive touchdown is always a great feeling, even though it looked like I almost stepped out of bounds. That was kind of like the beginning highlight of a year that was going to be special.”
Don Jacobs, backup quarterback, ran for 512 yards and three touchdowns: “One of the Baylor stories is (Alabama All-American center) Dwight Stevenson and (Baylor linebacker) Mike Singletary. They were running the 4-3 at the time and of course Singletary was a great All-Pro, Hall of Fame guy and Stevenson was the same thing. Those two were going head-to-head and, as you said, we beat them 45-0, but that’s another battle that you tell your kids about, your grandkids about.”
Junior: “The story about the Wichita State game, most people won’t remember this, Coach Bryant started his second-team offense and defense that game. He was trying to send a message to us, the starters. The old saying of I could take mine and beat yours, and take yours and beat mine. I know he started the second-team defense because they were playing well and we were wondering, ‘Are we going to get a chance to play this game?’ When he finally let the No. 1s on the field — Mike Pitts actually started that game ahead of me and Wayne Hamilton — the (Wichita State) guys were saying, ‘Whew, that E.J. Junior is a tough son of a gun.’ I looked at the guy and said, ‘No, that was my backup. I’m E.J. Junior.’ He sent a message that week. I think that really made us lock in and focus.”
Don McNeal, senior defensive back, tied for the team lead with 10 pass breakups: “That’s to get our attention. Coach Bryant knew exactly how to get our attention.”
Junior: “I really do believe that’s why he did it, because sometimes you can get full of yourselves. He still wanted to remind is that we needed to work hard and that he can take anybody and win football games, he didn’t need us.”
The strong start to the season was no doubt in large part thanks to the talent on the team: Shealy, Ogilvie and Steve Whitman all averaged over 5 yards per carry at the end of the season. But Alabama presented something different in that time: it was a true wishbone team in an era where most of its competition was running I-Formation. It allowed UA to hold onto the ball, average 8:46 of possession in third quarter and 8:41 in the fourth.
Ogilvie: “Not many teams ever really took to the wishbone. Most of that was done in Texas and Oklahoma. The dominant offense in the 70s, if you look at the majority of them, was the I offense. The wishbone, it was developed late in the 60s and Coach Bryant took what Texas was doing with it and matched it to what we were doing with it, which was a little different. But, at the same time, the nice thing about the wishbone, it’s more of a finesse offense than you think, and if you don’t practice against it constantly, you’re not used to seeing the plays, it can kind of catch you by surprise. That was always an advantage for us: defenses were practicing against the I, so it was a little bit of a surprise in terms of the finesse and the quickness that it can get on you.”
Bunch: “It’s almost like a boxing match when you play on the offensive line. You get beaten up pretty good during the course of the game — even if you’re if you’re the one doing the majority of the beating, your body’s still going through a lot of trauma.
“Coach Bryant used to call it to them and through them. We would aim for a point five yards behind the guy and literally try to run through him. It’s more of a leap, but you bring your feet with you and keep moving them.”
On the same day as UA’s trouncing of the 0-10-1 Gators, USC played to a 21-21 tie with a Stanford team that ultimately went 5-5-1. Alabama was promptly moved up to No. 1.
Ogilvie: “I didn’t really keep up with polls that much that time of year. We were in the middle of the season trying to get better each week. We were ranked number one in other polls all year long, depending on who you listen to.”
Bunch: “Coach always said don’t worry about the polls, there’s nothing we can do about the polls, just play the best game we can play.”
Alabama’s first game as No. 1 was also it’s first test, against Tennessee on Oct. 20 in Birmingham. Tennessee jumped out to a 17-0 lead largely on the back of at least three fumbles lost by Alabama. UA put a touchdown on the board late in the half to make it 17-7 at halftime, where the game turned for good.
Bunch: “I looked over to Tennessee team and they were kind of in disbelief. They weren’t screaming and yelling; I would have thought they would have been really happy, but they weren’t, they were just in disbelief that they were that much ahead of us. Coach Bryant comes in at halftime and we thought he was really gonna let us have it; he walks over to us and his clapping his hands saying, ‘We got them right where we want them, the second half’s ours.’ We came back to win 27-17.”
Ogilvie: “I’ll always remember Coach Bryant’s great halftime speech. All of us remember when he walked in the locker room right after that first half and told us we got them right where we want them. Of course some of us weren’t sure how to take that comment, but we put things back together, went out there for the second half and really had a lot of fun. Coach Bryant was great at saying the right things at the right time, that was just his way. Keep in mind, playing for Coach Bryant, there was a lot more emphasis on the second half than there was on the first half.”
Bunch: “I was a little bit disbelief he said it. I was really expecting for him to let us have it, you know. But it was kind of an uplift, because he believed in us. He knew that we could come back.”
Jacobs: “Everybody kind of looked around like, ‘Has heat stroke hit him or something?’ He goes, ‘They think they can win and I know y’all can.’”
Ogilvie: “That Tennessee game makes it or breaks it as far as us having a chance to claim the national championship.”
The game was put away for good when Jacobs scored on a quarterback sneak — for 13 yards.
Jacobs: “What they were doing, they were playing a 6-1 defense and the 2 techniques, over the guards, were pinching in and out trying to mess up our guards and tackles. When we were running the play, I kind of got a tip on what they were doing so I started trying to run quarterback sneaks trying to keep the middle linebacker at home. They were freeing up the middle linebacker to let him run. I saw the tackles and both of them were going out, so I just took off up the middle. Steve Whitman was my roommate and he said, ‘Jake, man, if you would’ve just handed it off I would’ve scored,’ because there was nobody in the middle of the field. I don’t know what the two safeties were looking at, because neither one of the safeties even came toward me.
“I walked in the end zone untouched and you go, ‘Wow, I don’t know how that happened.’”
Alabama quickly got back to its usual ways after the Tennessee scare, beating Virginia Tech 31-7 and Mississippi State 24-7, the only drama being needing a 17-point third quarter to pull away from the Bulldogs.
Up next: a 3-0 win in Baton Rouge, a game played in a torrential downpour.
Junior: “That had to be the muddiest game in the world.”
Ogilvie: “It had been raining down there for two days. That was the soggiest, nastiest, wettest field in the world. We were glad to get out of there with a win, period.”
Junior: “In that game we knew that LSU defense was just as good as ours. That was a challenge. Our offense struggled. We had to hold up our end of the bargain. They were Alabama, they were just southwest of us. If you switched the uniforms, I really don’t think you could tell a difference in the teams. Two weeks later when we played Auburn, it was almost the same thing.”
Ogilvie: “Toward the end of the Tennessee game I got hurt pretty seriously and missed the next two weeks, I think we played Virginia Tech and Mississippi State and I missed those games. I found out in the middle of the week they were kind of thinking about it: I practiced five plays on Thursday, five plays on Friday and played the whole game Saturday night.
“Most of that game was played in the middle of the field. There weren’t many plays inside the 20s because it was such a nasty night. It was a typical old football game as far as field position and things like that.”
Junior: “If you weren’t sore and you weren’t hurting after those games, you didn’t play.”
When Alabama did get into the red zone for its third-quarter field goal, it did so with a counter option look it had not run in the past. When the fullback dive portion of a wishbone triple option went to the right, usually the quarterback and running back trailed to the right to continue the play. In these plays, the fullback was used as misdirection, as the rest of the option went the opposite way of the fullback.
Ogilvie: “I don’t remember the exact sequence, but it was somewhere right in there when we put that counter option in place, and we used it quite a bit for the rest of the year. The game report was they had quick linebackers, so that’s what we were trying to affect.”
The performance in that game, and the 30-0 win over Miami a week later, helped secure the 1979 defense’s place as among the best the sport had seen to date.
Junior: “Ken Donahue, God rest his soul, to me was one of the best defensive coordinators that’s every coached college football. He would put us in positions to make plays, and that’s what we did. We had good coaches on that staff: of course you had Bill Oliver, you had Jeff Rousey coaching the linebackers, you had Sylvester Croom who was my position coach. Those four guys, I mean, we would run through a brick wall for those guys. They made us great. Coach Bryant coached them and they coached us.
“The one thing back then that you don’t see now is coaches didn’t leave, they didn’t leave to go to a better job — I guess there was no better job than being at Alabama. A lot of those coaches, I really believe could’ve been head coaches. Those coaches could have left in the days of Coach Bryant and been pretty good head coaches at other places. You bloom where you planted, and those guys bloomed and did what they needed to do.”
Bunch: “Coach Bryant would play every player on defense first, and if he felt like that player had more of an impact on defense, the defensive coordinator would get that player. It was just a different strategy back then.”
Ogilvie: “Defense and Coach Bryant are synonymous with our success, but you’re absolutely right, our defense was really, really scrappy that year. Going back to the LSU thoughts as far as 3-0, when you got our defense and you got the lead in a nasty place like that, you got to feel good about that.”
McNeal: “We always had that standard. We always played that way.”
Junior: “We would get upset if we gave up the goose egg. If we didn’t get that goose egg, we didn’t play well enough. I think we took more pride in trying to shut teams out than how many points we beat teams by.”
Alabama had its championship hopes threatened one last time in its regular season, when Auburn erased a 14-3 halftime deficit and led 18-17 in the fourth quarter. An 80-yard touchdown drive, capped by an eight-yard Shealy touchdown run, won the game.
Bunch: “That Auburn team was as talented as any Auburn team I’ve ever seen. They lost two close games early in the year, and we had to drive the ball 80 yards to win the game late and then they came back again. They had three guys who were all pro running backs: they had James Brooks, they had Joe Cribbs and, I loved this guy’s nickname, Lionel “Little Train” James. He was small but he was a really good player. All three of them went to the NFL and were All-Pro players.”
Ogilvie: “Going into the fourth quarter, we were behind and things didn’t look so good for us, but at the same time it was a true measure of that team. We had a lot of confidence that we could do what we needed to do when we needed to do it.”
Jacobs: “I played three plays in that game (due to injury). I was standing on the sideline freezing to death and my leg was killing me and it was swollen up.”
Ogilvie: “That was a long, long drive. There were a lot of big plays and we ate a bunch of clock up, which the wishbone was really good at doing.”
Even after the Iron Bowl win, the country was split on its national championship favorite. The coaches poll kept UA as its No. 1, but the AP Poll moved Ohio State over Alabama; Ohio State did not play the day Alabama beat Auburn, having beaten Michigan the week prior. Ohio State would go to the Rose Bowl to play USC while Alabama played Arkansas (then of the Southwest Conference) in the Sugar Bowl.
Bunch: “The bowl games were special. We would have a little break, and then Coach Bryant, usually we would practice like it was spring ball when we first got back to practice for the bowl game. We did a lot of full speed stuff. I mean, it was tough. As the game approach, a bowl game, he would ease up, nowhere near as hard. Coach Bryant, one of his biggest skills was knowing how to make a team peak at the end.”
Junior: “Going into that game against Arkansas, I remember one of the famous quotes from Coach (Lou) Holtz, when he was meeting with Coach Bryant, he said, ‘Alabama’s got some good players, we got to stop that P.J. Junior,’ and Coach Bryant corrected him. ‘Coach, it’s E.J. Junior.’ He says, ‘P.J. E.J. C.J, I don’t care, we got to block No. 39.”
Bunch: “The unique thing about the Arkansas game, the coach, Lou Holtz, that’s the team I was originally going to, N.C. State. Everybody told me I couldn’t play at Alabama: six-foot tall, I weighed about 230. They said you’ll never travel, you’ll never get to play. And I loved the city of Raleigh, nothing against Tuscaloosa. I was ready to go to N.C. State but Holtz left and went to Jets for about nine games. He didn’t like the pros and I don’t think the pros liked him, so he went to Arkansas. So it was kind of a weird twist in fate for me, because I got to play against the guy that I was originally going to go school with.”
Ogilvie: “We matched up our offense on our defense unusually well, and we had a couple of plays we put in for that game where the halfbacks were in the wing position. They had particularly good linebackers and they could get on the corners well, so we moved those halfbacks up into the slot and that allowed the halfbacks to get on the linebackers quick and seal the outside for us. We had a lot of big plays on the outside that day.”
Junior: “(Arkansas running back) Gary Anderson was having a heck of a year. Arkansas coming to the Sugar Bowl, we had to win that game. To play on Jan. 1 and have a chance to finish that season undefeated was a great feeling.”
Alabama beat Arkansas 24-9; junior running back Billy Jackson had 120 of his 234 rushing yards for the season in that game. On the same day, Ohio State lost the Rose Bowl to USC, 17-16. Alabama was considered the undisputed national champions.
Jacobs: “Well we didn’t have Twitter and Google and all that other good stuff that we got today. Word eventually got back around that we had a chance, and of course the next morning at 5 a.m. my mom comes in there and says y’all won the national championship. I guess she was up making coffee and turned on the TV, I guess. She come in there and wake me up and I said, ‘Good, now wake me up in about three more hours.’”
That 1979 team ultimately had six players earn at least third-team All-American honors, Bunch earned a first-team selection. Several players called it one of, if not the, best team they ever played on, but they also know where they got their winning ability.
Bunch: “We had a lot of great players, but really, we really only had one superstar, and that was Coach Bryant. He was phenomenal. When he walked into a room, it didn’t matter who he’s with: I mean, he could be with Ronald Reagan or, you know, we had a lot of visitors, George Wallace, you always looked at Coach Bryant. He was the first guy that caught your attention when he walked in a room.”
McNeal: “He said, ‘Don McNeal, whatever you do, wherever you go, always show your class.’ I always try to do that. I remember Coach Bryant taking me to his house, and he told me, ‘Son, you can have this.’ He showed me around his house and all the things he had and he told me, ‘Son, you can have these things, but you have to do what you have to do. You have to work hard.’”
Bunch: “He’d do anything in the world for any former player. I never asked him for anything, but I’m sure he’d help guys out and find them jobs. He was just like Coach Saban in the respect that he was trying to prepare us for like after football. He would do anything in the world for us.
“There was once where John Croyle was talking to him about what he should do after football, and Coach Bryant received three phone calls. One was the President of the United States. One was Bob Hope. I can’t remember the other guy, but each time he’d tell his secretary to take a message, he was talking to one of his players and he’d call the guy back. He was that type of person.”
Junior: “We had great players: I was good, but we had great players around me. They made me look good.”
Ogilvie: “I saw where ESPN ranked that 1979 team as the eighth best in the history of college football. That was a good football team, the best football team I’ve ever played on.”
Jacobs: “It kind of goes back to the old story of you don’t have to tell people how good you are or how good you were. It’s written down somewhere, somebody will recognize that.”
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson